South Africa


To be a force for good in the world, we must strengthen democracy in South Africa

To be a force for good in the world, we must strengthen democracy in South Africa
Former South African deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas. (Photo by Gallo Images / Beeld / Werner Hills)

It is often said that foreign policy begins at home, and it is, therefore, a sign of our political malaise that South Africans no longer wrestle with our role in the world. This occurred to me while accompanying President Cyril Ramaphosa on his historic whistle-stop tour of four West African nations.

This week marks the eighth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s passing and, in light of the fallout over the knee-jerk and unfair red listing of South Africa and some of our neighbours following the discovery of the Omicron variant, one cannot help but reflect on how our image has changed.

The Mandela era, when we basked in the afterglow of the political deal of 1994 and stood as a beacon of democracy and justice in the world, is long gone. Gone too are the days when Thabo Mbeki laid out a vision of South Africa in the vanguard of a rising Africa developing its own solutions and standing against neocolonialism. 

After Mbeki, South Africa’s global image was tarnished by State Capture and the economic and governance weaknesses that made us less of an inspiration and a model for other countries. Our moral standing was eroded by lapses of courage such as denying a visa to the Dalai Lama, the refusal to arrest former Sudanese leader Omar al Bashir and unwillingness to speak out against human rights abuses in Africa.

Our reputation on the continent was tarnished by the xenophobic violence unleashed on African immigrants. Our immigration policies also did us no favours in terms of attracting skills, investments and tourism.

Today, South Africa has recovered much respect in the global community. We stand for wholesome international relations and take up politically important causes, including Palestinian rights. 

We are friends of the multilateral agencies and a voice for Africa and the Global South on issues such as vaccine apartheid and global assistance in the wake of the pandemic. President Ramaphosa is widely respected as a democrat and a voice of reason among the world’s leaders.

But there is a sense that South Africa, especially since the State Capture years, punches below its weight. How can we remain relevant at this major inflection point in world affairs?

Covid-19 has had a devastating human and economic impact, and the recovery has to involve a major rethink of global power relations and public health. The World Bank estimates that Africa faces a shortfall of R4.8-trillion in funding to offset the damage caused by the pandemic.

The natural disasters that have battered the planet in recent months are just a glimpse into the future that awaits us if we do not act vigorously and with urgency to mitigate climate change. Africa, which is heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture, is already bearing the brunt of the ecological destruction and natural disasters.

South Africa’s coastline flanks the Indo-Pacific region which has become the epicentre of great power rivalry between the United States and China. Tensions are rising over greater Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the countervailing emergence of new security alliances between the US, India, Australia, Japan and the UK. The US has stationed forces in Taiwan amid increased Chinese warplanes flying into the island’s defence zone and President Xi Jinping’s vow to reunify Taiwan and China

This unfolding struggle for dominance, including a global technology competition, is exerting pressure on smaller Pacific and Indian Ocean powers and extends into Africa. At the same time, second-tier powers such as Russia, Turkey, the UAE, India and Israel have joined China, the US and the former colonial powers in the race for influence in Africa.

Geography and history has decided that South Africa will be a player, whether we like it or not.

The question is whether — armed with neither the military power that made apartheid South Africa a stalwart western ally in the Cold War or the moral vision that lent us a special standing post-1994 — we still have a unique role to play in the troubled world of 2021.

In order to answer that, we need to go back to the first principles. 

Two things shape foreign policy in the modern age: values and interests. Interests go to the material wellbeing of our people in economics and security, and to our sovereignty as a nation. How do our foreign relations make us safer and more prosperous and keep us free from domination?

Values derive from our cultures, our beliefs and our religions, and the long and often brutal arc of South Africa’s history that produced one of the most progressive and beautiful constitutions in the world.

How can we, in this new age, formulate a foreign policy that both protects our interests and projects our values?

During the apartheid era South Africa’s status as a global pariah drove a ruthless emphasis on protecting the interests of the white minority. This was done by skirting and end-running embargoes and sanctions and by a willingness to bully and intimidate South Africa’s neighbours. This policy was underlined by a powerful and aggressive military, by possessing nuclear weapons and by the cynicism that underlay Cold War alliances.

To the great relief of many throughout the world, democratic South Africa focused on “values” — more specifically human rights. Globally, our historic and peaceful transition to democracy was held up as the epitome of exemplary political leadership and nation-building, a light that has grown dimmer over the intervening decades.

During the era of Mbeki, the diplomat in chief, South Africa was reluctant to impose its values on African countries deemed to be bad actors. Instead, Mbeki was instrumental in the formation of the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad), which created a multilateral structure in which African states could, through peer review, practice self-governance and hold themselves accountable.

The aim of Nepad was to promote peace and stability, democracy, economic development and people-centric development in Africa. For a while, it appeared to be on course to meet that promise — for instance applying zero tolerance to military coups. But while Nepad has been converted into an African Union development agency, the impetus for political reform has faded and many of its ambitious goals have not been met. This has coincided with South Africa stepping back from a leadership role on the continent.

While our public postures are high-minded and correct, South Africa has been reluctant to take on some of the thornier questions. We have been able to shelter under the collective failure of the African Union to deal with some of the continent’s most intransigent conflicts, such as the civil war in Ethiopia.

During the Zuma years, we tilted, at least at the UN, towards Russia and China. Under the current president, South Africa has pursued a pragmatic position as essential allies to all. That is sensible — there is no reason for South Africa to take sides when the major powers rumble.

There is no question that the route to our unique place in the world goes through Africa.

The best way to do that is to strengthen African economies and institutions and to forge a new solidarity across the continent.

The crippling debt of many countries, sluggish growth, civil conflicts and jihadi wars, the unregulated spread of urbanisation, youth joblessness and democratic decline all require more than ever a collective African stand.

Not only was Africa the continent most devastated by the pandemic, but its recovery is falling behind that of other regions because of the slow roll-out of vaccines. Africa is the least inoculated region in the world. Additionally, most African countries have lacked the fiscal means to stimulate their economies through the kind of measures that pulled the rest of the world out of recession.

Our interactions with the world should be aimed not just at immediate problem solving and conflict resolution, important as that is, but at correcting the global inequality and imbalances that have persisted since the time when Mbeki and Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo worked together to forge Nepad and other trans-continental initiatives — and have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The goal should be simple: to promote economic growth and development, good governance, poverty alleviation and human security. The continent is stronger when it is united and when South Africa plays a leadership role.

Even as we face these problems, we need to remind ourselves that Africa is the continent of the future — by 2050 one out of three people under 24 on the planet will be Africans. African resilience and innovation stand to fundamentally change the narrative of global strength.

We live in an era of greater opportunities for cooperation, for instance in the Africa Free Trade Zone which became operational earlier this year. There are numerous collective successes on the continent such as the African CDC, which has led Africa’s response to the pandemic.

We have new partners on the continent and in the sub-region who share our democratic and human-based values and who can assist in the revival of multilateral initiatives at the African Union and SADC.

South Africa has the private sector, the universities, the technological expertise and the intellectual capital to be a leader to assist the countries of the continent to adapt and transform their economies to the new green economy to combat climate change. And as the World Bank points out, linking climate-related finance to governance reforms will mobilise resources.

At the same time, we have to recognize that given South Africa’s long seaboard, a key route for global shipping, and our position as an entry point into Africa, we are vulnerable to inducement by powers expanding their own influence. The need to defend our sovereignty and prevent a new colonialism, here and on the rest of the continent, is more critical now than at any time in the modern era. 

To take on this role, the best defence of our values and interests comes down to strengthening our democracy, our institutions and the rule of law.

Instead of being in harmony, values and interests have sometimes collided with each other. After the Sun City deal of 2003 in which Mbeki brokered peace between the warring parties in the DRC, a South African company with links to the ruling party emerged with oil blocks next to Lake Albert. This led to an ongoing dispute that has left the DRC with a budget-crushing $600-million debt before even a single drop of oil has been produced.

This suspicion of side interests profiting off the back of international cooperation has been repeated elsewhere on the continent in multiple deals. If we export a version of State Capture into the rest of the continent, we will undermine our best efforts to be a soft power nation.

Of course, it is completely acceptable and necessary for our foreign service to support legitimate business. In fact, a distance and sometimes distrust between the business community and government meant that South Africa never managed to support business in the way that the Americans and the Chinese and others support their national commercial enterprises.

There is a world of difference between creating the environment for foreign investors to bring capital, technology and jobs to South Africa and massive energy deals of dubious provenance where there is suspicion that billions of rands will be siphoned off while making the country indebted to foreign powers.

This points to one thing: the best way to fix our foreign policy is to get our act together at home. South Africa needs to focus on poverty and inequality, on ending corruption and lawlessness, on economic growth, and on forging a sense of national unity. 

For all this to happen, there must be decisive leadership, policy coherence, national security and a strengthening of our investment case.

That way we can be effective leaders and good citizens in Africa and a pillar of a just and democratic global order to stand strong in the storms ahead. DM

Mcebisi Jonas is MTN group chairman and former deputy finance minister of South Africa.

[hearken id=”daily-maverick/8881″]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Corruption has ruined South Africa’s reputation. The lack of action after the violence in July and the inability to hold the corrupt to account undermines all foreign policy efforts. All the money promised after Cop 26, and the first thought is; it’s going to be stolen. Many in government saw Covid as an opportunity to loot: why assume that has changed?

  • Peter Pyke says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful article. We need to also properly address the elephant in the room.
    Your words “by 2050 one in three people under 24 on the planet will be Africans” is a chilling reminder why Africa will remain at a disadvantage and lag the developed economies. These sorts of population growth are unsustainable and will keep Africa a basket case.

  • Andries Breytenbach says:

    Interesting article with an expected positive Ramaphosa spin and a longing reference to the Mbeki era, but failing to acknowledge the ANC and government’s role in state capture, endemic corruption and the stranglehold a failed BEE policy has placed on local business investment. Foreign investors judge our investment climate and opportunity by watching what local business is doing. With the exception of the agricultural sector (bar the wine industry), the picture isn’t rosy.

  • Gordon Pascoe says:

    I am surprised that our poor education system, reportedly ranked as the poorest in the world (let alone the treatment of scholars – pit latrine deaths, etc) is not mentioned in the article. Until we fix fix our education system South Africa has little chance of becoming “effective leaders and good citizens in Africa and a pillar of a just and democratic global order to stand strong in the storms ahead”.

    And regarding the comment “knee-jerk and unfair red listing of South Africa and some of our neighbours following the discovery of the Omicron variant” has anyone considered the harm that the prolific unchecked production of false Covid and vaccine certificates in South Africa causes?

  • Love JHB South says:

    Over population is killing the earth

  • Jon Quirk says:

    This otherwise excellent article is largely silent on the most important aspect in being able to have an effective foreign policy and to be able “to do good”, globally. And that most vital ingredient and aspect is an effective and performing economy.

    The economy is the bedrock from which the ability to do anything, grows from. Without a growing economy, in both absolute and per capita basis, there are simply no funds for bettering health, education, increasing employment, and relevant to this article, to be able to enable South Africa to “punch above it’s weight”, internationally.

    Today, the reverse is true; our country both is, and is perceived to be, a declining middle-income, industrial powerhouse, whose glory days are behind it, and is rapidly degenerating into the low-income, failed State, category.

    And all of this is self-induced, not least because of the twin ogres of the last few years, State Capture (together with wider corruption) and the orgy of violence of July’s insurrection, are a direct result of extremely bad, ANC Governance.

    Saying this, clearly charts the way forward; it is vital that all the miscreants in both categories are rounded up, charged, arrested and their influence over ANC policy removed – in short, the ANC needs to both project and be, the kind of force for good in Africa that it once threatened, and promised to be.

  • Peter Dexter says:

    A good article by a man I respect. South Africa has numerous problems, like poor education, healthcare, corruption all working together to drive away investment, and skills, harming our competitiveness. This results in increased poverty and inequality. But everyone knows these things and they are merely the symptoms. The cause is poor leadership and a lack of accountability. The EWC Bill was defeated yesterday, but Section 47 of the Constitution should be amended to improve the competence, integrity and accountability standards for MP’s. The fact that there is no competence requirement for entry to parliament, and the integrity standard is set so low that almost any scoundrel is deemed fit, is the proximate cause of all the ills facing South Africa.

    • Charles Parr says:

      Peter, your last sentence hits the nail on the head. The tolerance for putting exceptionally poor quality people in positions of authority, or any government position, simply because they’re party hacks, whether members of the ANC, the SACP or simply holding an hereditary position, impacts on everything that comes after that. The conditions of employment for any public position should be that within three years of joining the service, each and every person must pass a certificate which provides a basic knowledge of our constitution, our legal system, fundamental economics, budgeting, management of people and ethics as a absolute minimum. We can only make progress in this country when there is a common understanding that stealing R1 000 from a project that was budgeted to cost R10 000 means that that project will never be completed without taking funds from other projects and therefore the problems start compounding. And without consequences and stiff penalties we’re on a road to nowhere.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Sir, you are a person I greatly respect and I like some of the sober observations shared.
    As a person of influence I note with regret that many of your observations are made by wearing pink glasses.
    You mention the progressive and beautiful constitution, yet neglect to mention that many in power are totally disrespecting it without consequences.
    You talk about human rights and disregard one the most severe crimes against humanity committed in this country, viz. a basic education system in total shambles.
    You expect SA to be a leader on the continent without pointing out the total lack of leadership in the country.
    I believe that people of your caliber, experience and standing have an obligation to point out what is wrong and initiate dialogues that can lead us out of the morass SA is in.
    Respectfully yours,

  • thenains says:

    What an excellent article! Mr Jonas could have enjoyed a great career in journalism but I thank God for providing the path which he did take!

  • Dou Pienaar says:

    One can make many positive and constructive comments on this brilliant analysis of Africa and in particular SA’s role on the continent. The tragedy to me is that a visionary leader like Mcebisi Jonas is not either our president or at least our Foreign/International Affairs minister. It appears to me that all of us South Africans should have the courage to un-apologetically push back on poor leadership and do whatever we can individually and collectively to put leaders like Mr. Jonas in the appropriate positions to lead our nation.

  • Stephen T says:

    A good and respectable argument from Mr Jonas. However, I believe he is preaching to the converted here. Try explaining these concepts to the average illiterate farm labourer, who incidentally has the exact same voting power as you, me, Mr Jonas, and everyone else in the country. Democracy is all fine and well when all citizens are on a reasonably equal footing to be able to make an informed contribution to it.

    This is clearly not the case in our little republic thanks in no small part to the catastrophic failings of the ANC (Mr Jonas’ party, don’t forget) in basic education and family planning (population control). The poverty of wealth is one thing, but the poverty of intellect is whole other dimension of inequality that never gets mentioned in any mainstream media, probably because it is all too easy and politically expedient to use scapegoatism to create sensationalism instead.

    • Hermann Funk says:

      Like so many, you are delegating your responsibility as a democrat. What are you doing to “enlighten”, educate those whom you are blaming?

      • Stephen T says:

        I gave up after being called a racist for quoting population figures from Stats SA.
        If people are too stubborn to even look at the evidence, how are they going to accept a reasonable extrapolated argument based upon it? You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

  • Hennie du Preez says:

    Thank you for the excellent article from from Mr. Jonas. Short of a political revolution, the only organization that can bring about the sort of change that he’s talking about is the ANC, at the head of which stands Mr. Ramaphosa. And he’s been there for more than 3 years and has failed to bring about that sort of change.

    Perhaps Mr. Jonas should make himself available to take over the ANC leadership at their next conference!

  • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

    “The Mandela era, when we basked in the afterglow of the political deal of 1994 and stood as a beacon of democracy and justice in the world, is long gone.” You are correct Mr Jonas. The world has since realised that the anc is and has always been a corrupt and racist bunch, with the odd member who has some sense of integrity and/or moral fiber in line with civilised countries across the rest of the world. The 1994 honeymoon is over. The country has been totally ruined because of anc policy of AA, BEE and Feeding at the trough for the sole purpose of the anc staying in power.(Not as a government, but as rulers of the people)

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.